When in Melbourne

Back in September I had the great pleasure to go to Melbourne as the keynote speaker for the National Archaeology Student Conference (NASC). Whilst I was in town, I also spent an enjoyable couple of hours talking to Matt Smith of La Trobe University, who has produces podcasts on the ancient world. The first of our conversations, on the graffiti of Pompeii, is now available as Episode XXX of the When in Rome series. If you’ve got an hour to spare and want to learn a bit about the writing on the walls of an ancient city, you can find the podcast on iTunes and Soundcloud.

 

 

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The War in Pompeii

In the autumn of 1943, during the Allied push to move up the Italian peninsula, the city of Pompeii was bombed twice, in September and October. Rumours have long abounded that someone in the Allied leadership believed that a Nazi Panzer unit was hiding amongst the ruins of the houses and buildings of the city (I know tanks are good at difficult terrain, but I can’t see them successfully maneuvering on many of Pompeii’s streets), but it is now thought both raids were accidental rather than deliberate. Regardless, more than one hundred and fifty bombs fell on the ruins, causing considerable damage to a number of houses, the original museum, and the palaestra.

Plan Pompeii 1943 Bomb Damage Bestand-Microfiche-D-DAI-ROM-1303_D06 neg 65.2004.jpeg

I’ve always rather marveled at the fact that despite heavy damage in the southwest corner of the city to the palaestra, the one bomb that fell upon the amphitheatre landed in the middle of the arena floor, causing the least damage possible to the structure:

Of course, in the aftermath, no Nazi tanks (or even troops) were found in the city.

As the war moved north, and slowly came to an end, Pompeii became the focus of a different sort of military activity: tourism. Troops stationed in and around Italy visited the ruins in huge numbers. A brief account of such visits can be found here. tumblr_o5n6n6ucql1rq5hzro1_500

Two such visitors left behind a graffito, recording their time in the city. Found on a wall in the House of Paquius Proculus (I.vii.i, also known as the House of Cuspius Pansa as electoral dipinti for both men were found on the walls), it contains the initials of two individuals and the date, the 31st of July 1944.

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The house itself had been excavated first in 1911 and completed between 1923 and 1926, thus making it one of the more recently discovered properties in 1944. As the house still retains extensive wall paintings and intricate floor mosaics (the atrium floor especially, which today cannot be walked on), it must have been quite a site a mere twenty years after it was cleared of volcanic debris. There is no way of knowing anything further about the people that left this inscription, A.V. and A.L., or even if they were military, but the date suggests to me that it is unlikely there were many civilian tourists visiting Pompeii at the time. The manner in which the date is written – day then month – along with the cross on the seven, indicates the person who scratched this was not American in origin, most likely European or Australian.*

There are numerous accounts of soldiers visiting ancient sites and cultural landmarks throughout Europe and North Africa during the war, but this is the first time I have come across direct evidence of it myself. I am sure other graffiti of a similar ilk must exist, but undoubtedly have not been recorded systematically. If anyone has come across texts like this, particularly in Pompeii or Herculaneum, do let me know.

 

*Update: This post sparked conversation with Dr. Nigel Pollard, who is currently writing a monograph on Pompeii during the war, who suggests the banded seven was uncommon amongst Brits at the time, and may be attributed to French troops active in the area.

Damnation

About a month ago I managed to escape from the library long enough to pop into a small temporary exhibit at the  British Museum – Defacing the past: damnation and desecration in imperial Rome. It focuses on the practice of damnatio memoriae, where (mostly) bad emperors were condemned by the Senate, and had their name and likeness removed. In some instances, this was done by one emperor in order to remove a rival. Caracalla’s destruction of his brother Geta’s memory is the most obvious example, and one that featured heavily in the exhibit. But it was also a practice engaged in by the people after to removal of a particularly hated ruler. Pliny the Younger, writing after the damnatio memoriae had been issued for Domitian, said ‘How delightful it was, to smash to pieces those arrogant faces, to raise our swords against them, to cut them ferociously with our axes, as if blood and pain would follow our blows.’ (Panegyric 52.4-5). As I expected, the collection on display included some re-modelled or damamged portrait busts, a lot of coins that had one face rubbed out, and a few monumental stone inscriptions with lines chiseled out. What surprised me was to see a graffito, imitating a monumental inscription, and bearing the same erasure that a lapidary text would suffer. (The original graffito is not on display, but there is a large reproduction).

 

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Found in a guardhouse of the nightwatch in Trastevere in Rome, the original text says:

CIL VI 3075
Imp(eratore) d(omino) n(ostro) Alexandro III / co(n)s(ule) |(centuria) Auli Terentius / Felix devotus numini / eorum feci(t) sebac{c}i/aria m(ense) Mai{i}o / salvis commanipu/los.
‘To the emperor our lord Alexander, consul for the third time, Terentius Felix member of the division of Aulus, devotee of the protective gods of the imperial family, performed the [night watch] rota of the month of May with all his companions safe.’

The graffito includes what looks like an altar, with the text inscribed on the base, and surmounted with a statue of Victory holding a palm, and busts of Alexander Severus and his mother, Julia Mamaea, on either side. When Alexander was assassinated in AD 235, this death marked the end of the Severan Dynasty and the start of nearly fifty years of civil wars and upheaval, in which twenty-six of the next twenty-eight emperors were also assassinated. After his death, his memory was condemned. The graffito was then defaced – the images of him and his mother were both crossed out, and his name was struck through in the first line of text. The damage done to the graffito is clearer in a line drawing:

 

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Although the Senate issued a damnatio memoriae at the time of his death, this was lifted in AD 238, when Alexander Severus was instead deified. What is particularly interesting about that is that it potentially allows the execution of the damnatio memoriae on the graffito to be dated to a three year period. Furthermore, I find the act of defacing a graffito in this manner unusual in and of itself, and would surmise that it has only happened because it isn’t just a random scribbling, but one that was specifically made to replicate a monumental inscription. I have written about this practice before, but never have I come across a text that was defaced after a Senatorial decree. This, I think, puts a whole new twist on the concept of a damnatio memoriae, and how it was viewed or enacted by ordinary Romans.

Amor vincit omnia

I have been feeling a bit guilty there was no #GraffitiFriday post last week, and here it is Friday again and I had nothing planned. I’ve not had much time to look at graffiti lately as I’ve been working to meet publishing deadlines on another project. And this week has been even worse because… well. I try very much to keep my own political leanings out of my professional life, so let’s just say staying up till six am to watch these particular election results has been more than a little devastating both physically and emotionally. I think there are a lot of people in the world right now who need a hug. I can’t do that for everyone, but I’ll offer you instead a lovely little message I came across on the canalside in Birmingham a few months ago, that suggests one small way to make the world feel like a friendlier place. There were numerous such texts sprayed onto the bricks, I discovered, which gave me a sort of joy in thinking these were sanctioned works using a method that is usually considered vandalism. And who couldn’t use a little joy right now?

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H.R. Fecit

Much to my chagrin, one of my most recent forays into finding graffiti included a supremely klutzy moment wherein, distracted by some scratchings in the stone wall, I completely missed a couple of steps in what was probably the most inelegant tumble ever,  and am still limping around Oxford with the resultant sprained ankle. Nevertheless, I was much intrigued by what I saw on the walls of Kenilworth Castle.

Kenilworth Castle is largely a ruin today, but has stood on a hill for nearly nine hundred years. Its ruinous state is largely down to Oliver Cromwell, who ordered the demolition of the castle after the Civil War. It remained the possession of a single family from the time of the Restoration until 1938, when it was given to the state, and later in the century, English Heritage. Despite private ownership, it became a tourist destination in the early nineteenth century, with a little help from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth (1821).

It should come as no surprise then, that the graffiti I stumbled upon (literally!) in the castle keep is not medieval, but fairly modern. The earliest date I found was 1835:

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The latest was inscribed by Cindy and Guy in 1983. I expect, as the castle  passed into the hands of English Heritage in 1984, the area was better secured against would be graffitists as none have a date after this point.

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The keep itself is a sort of reddish-greyish sandstone, so whilst not the easiest surface to carve into, isn’t as difficult as some other rocks. This, and the interest of time, is probably why most of the marks left behind are merely initials.

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I was, naturally, thrilled to see that one tourist had traveled to the castle from my homeland – specifically – my home state:

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W.A. came from New York in 1871. At that time crossing the ocean was a much more difficult endeavour than now, and thus I can understand that this individual felt some compunction to record where it was s/he had originated. It is the only graffito of its kind in the castle, as far as I was able to locate, making me conclude this may have been one of the only foreigners who chose to leave a mark.

And finally – the one that I found most exciting (pointing it out to my partner immediately preceded my tumble down the steps) is, in fact, in Latin:

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Here we see some attempt to draw an artificial box around a collection of names (not unlike some Roman graffiti that present themselves as documents) and the date – 1901. This is likely a group of friends who decided to leave a substantial reminder of their visit. Although a cursory glance suggests there are a few different hands potentially at work here, it seems likely one is responsible – or at least claiming so. H.R. made this.

 

I Predict a Riot

Earlier this week I had the great privilege to spend an hour in a room full of engaged and enthusiastic Year 9 students talking about Pompeian graffiti. These students are studying for a GCSE in Classical Civilsation after school as part of The Iris Project at Cheney School. During the paper, in which I was introducing them to various aspects of graffiti and dipinti and the ways historians use these inscriptions, I was asked a question that rather took me by surprise. It wasn’t about graffiti, but about a wall painting that I was using to illustrate an event in Pompeii’s history which is related to a number of graffiti.

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This painting, found in the House of Anicetus, ( I.iii.23 ) famously depicts the riot that took place in the amphitheatre in AD 59. We know this is a real event because Tacitus tells us about it:

Tacitus Annals 14.17
‘At around the same time, there arose from a trifling beginning a terrible bloodbath among the inhabitants of the colonies of Nuceria and Pompeii at a gladiatorial show given by Livineius Regulus, whose expulsion from the senate I have recorded previously. Inter-town rivalry led to abuse, then stone-throwing, then the drawing of weapons. The Pompeians in whose town the show was being given came off the better. Therefore many of the Nucerians were carried to Rome having lost limbs, and many were bereaved of parents and children. The emperor instructed the senate to investigate; they passed it to the consuls. When their findings returned to the senators, the Pompeians were barred from holding any such gathering for ten years. Illegal associations in the town were dissolved, Livineius and the others who had instigated the trouble were exiled.’

In addition, there are a number of graffiti that illustrate the kind of animosity between neighbouring towns that may have contributed to, or resulted from, the event that Tacitus describes.

CIL IV 2183
Puteolanis Feliciter / omnibus Nuc{h}erinis / felicia et uncu(m) Pompeianis / Petecusanis.
Good fortune to the Puteolans; good luck to all Nucerians; the executioner’s hook to Pompeians.’

CIL IV 1329
Nucerinis / infelicia.
‘Ill luck to the Nucerians.’

One even accompanies a drawing depicting a gladiator holding a palm of victory:

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CIL IV 1293
Campani victoria una / cum Nucerinis peristis.
Campanians, in our victory you perished with the Nucerians.’

The question that was asked, however, related not to the graffiti but to the painting itself, or more to the point, how unusual it was to have a painting in one’s house that depicted such violence. On most occasions when I have come across a reference to this painting in a scholarly work, if the oddness of it is mentioned at all, it is done in a very offhand way of wondering why someone would wish to commemorate such an event (even if the Pompeians were considered the victors). I have never come across a comparison to other wall paintings in terms of the nature of the violence illustrated. In the moment when the question was asked, I was racking my brain for a similar scene – and I couldn’t think of a single one. The closest may be the Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun, which depicts a military battle. Still, as detailed as it is in regards to fallen men and distressed looking horses, it does not depict seemingly dead bodies still on the ground as we can see in the painting from Anicetus’s house. The very nature of gladiatorial combat is a gruesome and bloody sport to which Romans were largely accustomed, but sitting in an arena watching a contest which may result in spilled blood (but, contrary to popular belief, rarely death) is quite a different thing than displaying images of the dead or dying on the wall of your house.

The question, as raised by this student, made me think about the painting in a different way, and really wonder about the mindset of the person who had it commissioned. (I am now extremely curious to see if I can find anything comparable on the wall of a Roman house. If anyone has any examples – do let me know.)  This has been on my mind for a number of days, not just because of the nature of the question, but because of who asked it. It was a timely (and to be honest, necessary) reminder that for as much as I know and continue to learn about the ancient world, there is always a new and interesting way to think about things. More to the point, it is more often than not our students who point us in a different direction, and that our research, without our students, is lacking something essential.

Touring the Temple of Isis

The Temple of Isis in Pompeii has always been an intriguing structure for those who work in the ancient city. Not only is it a clear representation of the influx (and acceptance) of foreign gods in Rome, it also has had a distinct place in the conversation regarding euergetism, the political advancement of the sons of freedmen, and the rebuilding of the city after the earthquake in AD 62. The temple, seemingly demolished in its entirety in the earthquake, was rebuilt quickly due to the generosity of a six year old boy named Numerius Popidius Celsinus. It was among the first structures to be excavated in Pompeii, discovered in 1764.

I was recently in Pompeii doing a bit of work on graffiti, and much to my surprise, found a few in the Temple of Isis that I had somehow never noticed before. This, much like last week’s post, isn’t ancient graffiti, but instead is something more akin to early modern graffiti. The small building just to the south of the cella identified as a purgatorium (you can see the plan of the temple complex here) is still fairly well covered with the original ancient stucco work.

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The plaster has been used to record names of tourists and visitors, going back to the time the building was first excavated.

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The earliest I found was the above, J. Broom, who carved his name in 1789. The majority seem to date to the last few decades of the 1700s and the 1800s. The latest specific date I saw was 1900. Whilst the majority of the names were Anglophone (hardly a surprise considering the popularity of the Grand Tour amongst the British at that time), I was pleased to see at least one Italian had also left his mark. A man named Giuseppe (I can’t quite make out the surname), was there in 1790.

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I’ve already written about the seemingly inherent human desire to leave behind a mark (here and here), but there were a couple of other things that struck me about these particular graffiti. One is the handwriting. It is very obvious that most of these texts were written in a different era simply by the penmanship. This is particularly stunning in view of carving a name in stucco – few blocky large letters – but almost exclusively the fine cursive fonts of another century. It has the appearance of names having been signed with pen and ink rather than carved with a sharp object into a hard surface. Also, the specificity. A few people didn’t just record their names and the year, but also the month, and even the day.

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These visitors to the temple in May of 1797 (specifically on the 24th for the one on the left), used the column as their writing surface, thus limiting themselves considerably on space.

I admittedly rather like this little collection of names and dates in the Temple of Isis, despite the fact that usually I am disgusted by the addition of graffiti by modern tourists to sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum. Normally, I consider this defacement, and the destruction of irreplaceable ancient surfaces. This strikes me as particularly egregious when someone has written across a wall painting (what kind of tourist even brings a marker into the site?). Yet these texts, despite being defacement of an ancient monument, also tell a story about the site, about the history of the excavations and access, and about how Pompeii became a recognizable place in the world’s collective cultural mind. So whilst I am somewhat conflicted about their existence, finding them, searching for different years, looking at handwriting styles and names, was a few minutes of absolute joy, and a reminder of why I love doing what I do.